Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Barasingha and the Tharus

I like to ask my conservation students to pick a current controversy in wildlife management and explain how they would resolve it. Most say they would implement policies that meet the needs of both people and wildlife. Yet I worry that this is more easily said than done. When the needs of vulnerable species and vulnerable people overlap, win-win situations are appealing, but difficult to achieve. Take, for example, the plight of the wetland barasingha, or swamp deer, and the indigenous Tharu people in the lowlands of southern Nepal. In this situation, the biological traits of a wild species interact with a history of policies that have inadvertently fostered resource depletion and marginalisation of native people, thereby creating a complex dilemma.

The plains, rivers, hills, and mountains of Nepal provide an intricate mosaic of contrasting microhabitats. People, plants, and animals with unique adaptations to their environment populate this landscape, resulting in extraordinary biological and cultural diversity. Some of Nepal’s peoples and species, like the Sherpas of the high mountains and the tigers of the lowland jungles, are famous. Others, like the barasingha and the Tharu, are not so well known.

The barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii) is a relative of the North American elk (Cervus elaphus) and the European red deer (C. elaphus). Breeding adult male barasingha often has a dozen or more tines on their gracefully arching antlers. This gives them a regal appearance. Kipling wrote of a holy man helping a barasingha shed the velvet from his antlers: “little by little the royal stag nudged up his shoulder. Purun Bhagat . . . soothed the fretted beast.”

Barasinghas occur only on the Indian subcontinent. In the past, they lived along the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra floodplains, in areas that are now within the borders of India, Pakistan, Bhutan, and Nepal. Since the 1960s, over 20 local populations of barasingha have become extinct, and they are now classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Scientists recognise three forms, or subspecies, of barasingha. Of these, the wetland barasingha (R. duvaucelii) is the most numerous; however, at least 11 populations of this subspecies have disappeared in the past four decades, leaving just six populations in India and two in Nepal.

The wetland barasingha inhabits the Terai, a fertile alluvial plain extend¬ing along the base of the Himalayas. Much of the Terai supports 15-foot-tall grasses and groves of floodplain trees, with shorter grasslands, savanna, and forests of sal, a commercially valuable hardwood, on slightly higher ground. The main areas of open grassland are known as phantas. Many of the phantas were settled and farmed in the past.

The Terai is a land of contrasts and changes. Daily deluges during monsoon alternate with a prolonged dry season. Fires during the dry season and floods during the monsoon clear away vegetation. At the beginning of the dry season, groups of wetland barasingha congregate in open grassland, where they spread out in a line, standing or resting with their heads up and ears cocked. This behavior allows them to detect approaching predators and to communicate with each other (and also makes it easier for field workers to census them).

In addition to the wetland barasingha, other rare species live in the Terai, including the Bengal tiger, Asian one-horned rhinoceros, Asian elephant, hispid hare, and Bengal florican (a critically endangered bustard). Some of these species need open grassland; others require dense cover or a mixture of vegetation types. Some need wet places; others must have dry ground. Some are high priorities for tourism. Some, like the Bengal tiger, eat barasingha.

The Terai is culturally diverse as well. Partly because they have some genetic resistance to malaria (though they are not completely untouched by this debilitating disease), the Tharu historically inhabited the lowlands that outsiders considered a mysterious, dangerous, and disease ridden jungle.

As people of the frontier, Tharus occupied a subordinate position in the Nepalese social hierarchy. Nevertheless, the Government of Nepal sprayed DDT to control the malaria-transmitting mosquitoes, that large numbers of hill people, or pahari, moved into the Terai and cleared the hardwood sal forests for cultivation. Conflicts over land ownership between the Tharus and the immigrants intensified.

The outcomes of these interactions were almost always unfavourable to the Tharus. Some colonists settled on unclaimed land, but others, taking advantage of Tharu illiteracy, coerced them into signing over their fields, or appropriated their land and registered it to a new ‘owner’. New landowners then loaned money back to those who had lost their land. The borrower could supposedly pay the loan back with farm labour, but usually the arrangement led instead to permanent debt-bondage. Although this practice was outlawed in 1992, it continued because many Tharus were unaware of their legal rights. The Tharu economy is based on farming and fishing, supplemented with wild grassland and forest products. Grasses are used for walls, ceilings, baskets, mats, fans, and beds.

Actually, there are many Tharu cultures, each with its own language and custom. Until recently (when Tharus began to work together to fight poverty, discrimination, and violence), members of these groups did not intermarry, understand each other, or consider themselves to belong to the same ethnic group. But in spite of this diversity, all Tharus share a history of living in the the Terai. It was economically important to Nepal’s rulers, because of the labour Tharus supplied (as farmers and as highly skilled elephant drivers) and the revenues they paid to the state.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, some immigrants moved to the Terai from densely populated areas across the Indian border. But it was not until the 1960s, when nial lamps come from one type of grass, rope is fashioned from another, and lamp stands for the Diwali Hindu festival come from the stems of yet another.

For centuries, Tharu villagers harvested grasses from the phantas at the end of the monsoon and set fire to the remaining stubble. After studying habitat use by barasinghas in Bardiya National Park during six field seasons, biologist John Henshaw concluded that cut¬ting and deliberate burning benefit the wetland barasingha “because tall, dense and rank dry grasses provide little food value and also inhibit movement, social aggregation, and predator avoidance”. Furthermore, if the grasses are not burned, lightning strikes trigger hotter, more destructive conflagrations.

The fates of Tharus and the wetland barasinghas are intertwined. Because of the steep terrain and thin soil in Nepal’s mountains, land for agriculture is in short supply. Much of the nation’s farmland is concentrated in the fertile, well-watered Terai. As a result, this 15-mile-wide sliver of land is far more significant than its limited area (17% of Nepal) would suggest.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, government policy toward the Terai had two contradictory objectives. One favoured exploitation; the other, protection. In order to raise revenue from farming and from timber exported to British India, the state encouraged deforestation and cultivation. In order to maintain a buffer of dense forests to discourage invaders from India, the state set aside substantial tracts. These often took the form of hunting reserves for the use of Nepalese rulers and their visitors.

A single hunting party could kill scores of tiger, leopard, rhino, wild buffalo, boar, deer, and other wildlife. Although deer were not the preferred quarry in these hunts, the number killed was not trivial. Dr Henry Ambrose Old-field, surgeon to the British residency in Nepal, described a shooting excursion in 1851 in what is now Chitwan National Park. The prime minister “proposed that he would shoot any male deer we should meet, while I was to take the females,” wrote Oldfield. Although he did not say what kind of deer they killed, the fact that the hunts took place in “tall grass which in the rain grows luxuriantly and to a great height,” suggests that many were barasinghas. Conventional wisdom has it that the hunting reserves were a plus for conservation because they protected habitat. A popular guidebook on Nepal reaches the surprising conclusion that “despite the periodic massive slaughter of such hunts [emphasis added], the wildlife population remained relatively stable”. Contrary to this version of events, it is likely that royal hunting – along with the loss and fragmentation of critical habitats – did contribute to the depletion of big game in the Terai.

Until recently, most land in Nepal was the property of the kingdom’s rulers. Only they could grant or sell land. This system created a small, wealthy landowning elite and a large population of landless tenants. In 1957 Nepal’s forests were nationalised. Although this policy sought to curb deforestation, paradoxically it had the reverse effect. To avoid losing their lands to the government, many landlords cleared their forests and converted them to private farm lands.

In the early 1970s, the Government of Nepal set aside land for the protection of wildlife and their habitats and removed all people living in the designated areas. Today approximately one fifth of the nation is in national parks, wildlife reserves, hunting reserves, conservation areas, or buffer zones. Wetland barasinghas live in two reserves at the western end of Nepal’s Terai: Shukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve (which contains the world’s largest population of this sub-species) and Bardiya National Park. Several villages were initially relocated to create the park at Bardiya, and another 9,500 people, in 1,572 families, were evicted when the park was subsequently enlarged. Some left voluntarily, but 220 families were forcibly removed.

What happened to those people? As one would expect, their welfare deteriorated dramatically when they had to move. Conflicts between relocated villagers and park personnel intensified, and attacks by wildlife on people and crops increased as well. Other consequences were less obvious but no less devastating. The social organisation of the Tharus and the transmission of traditional knowledge and skills between generations were interrupted. A Tharu woman in a resettled village explained that “There is no unity. One house is Tharu, another is hill people, and another is another caste. . . Social work is very difficult. We are not getting help from each other.” “We are missing our traditions,” stated another Tharu; “There is no place to collect snails . . . The snail is very important food for us. There is not enough water here. It is a very hard life here. Even during the festivals we are compelled not to do some things because we are not able to collect resources for the festivals.”

In an attempt to mitigate some of these problems, the Government of Nepal is moving toward a more decentralised approach to managing resources. In 1994, the government and the United Nations Development Program initiated the Parks and Peoples’ Program (PPP), which designated buffer zones within which local people are allowed to harvest resources such as fodder, fuelwood, and grass. Clearly, villagers in buffer zones within the Terai are better off now that they have access to economically and culturally valuable resources within parks. When Arun Agrawal of the University of Michigan and Krishna Gupta of New Delhi’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry interviewed households participating in the PPP, however, they found that richer and higher caste households are more likely to participate in these programmes than poorer, low-status households, the very people who depend most heavily on resources from the buffers.

Conservationists and park managers want limits to grass-cutting to be set conservatively, to avoid triggering a decline in the barasingha population. Conversely, advocates for local user groups argue that overly cautious limits on the use of park resources have negative consequences for people outside the park and point out that barasinghas benefit from open habitats. Katrina Brown at the University of East Anglia calculates that local vil¬lagers are already feeling the pinch. The amount of thatch available under park regulations is not enough to keep up with the demand for thatch to replace existing roofs when they deteriorate.

Restrictions on the availability of thatch have encouraged some households to switch to clay tiles. These are expensive. Many villagers do not have extra income to spend on tiles, but they do have time to cut thatch. Furthermore, tile production also involves its own set of ecological problems, associated with extracting and firing clay. Since fuelwood is already scarce in Nepal, replacing thatch with tile may increase, rather than reduce, environmental costs.

Barasinghas and Tharus in the Terai are caught in a situation that is not of their own making. Both are vulnerable to ecosystem degradation. The wetland barasingha is vulnerable because of its specialised habitat requirements, limited geographic range, and the isolation of its sub-populations. Tharu vulnerability stems from poverty and social disadvantage. Beacause they are cash-poor and land-poor, the Tharus rely heavily on harvesting grass and other wild products, but because of their low status they have had little say in how protected lands could be used. Unlike the deer, however, Tharus are not passive players. They are affecting the direction of change by organising to improve their welfare and increase the power of their voices. In the 1980s, young Tharus began organising literacy classes and teaching villagers about their rights. One Tharu organiser, Dilli Bahadur Chaudhari, received the Reebok Human Rights Award in 1994 for his work toward empowering Tharus.

Part of the difficulty in developing policies that sustain both biological and cultural diversity stems from the fact that biologists and social scientists look through different lenses. Fortunately, this is starting to change. Many biologists now realise that people are part of ecosystems, and social scientists recognise the dependence of human societies on biological diversity.

The legal picture is evolving as well. In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, extending the concept of human rights to include economic, social, and cultural rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living and the right to participate in one’s com¬munity. Another half century passed before the UN formally articulated a right to be “protected against being arbitrarily displaced”. Finally, in 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples explicitly applied this concept to native peoples, stating that “indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. . . without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned.” Although international law is not legally binding, these agreements reflect cur¬rent legal norms and carry considerable weight as a moral force.

As complex as this situation is, I’ve actually simplified it considerably by focusing on a single species and a single (albeit diverse) ethnic group. The picture becomes even more complicated when we include other species and ethnic groups, but the critical question remains the same: how can vulner¬able cultures and species be sustained?

The people living near protected areas in the Terai, as well as scientists, conservationists, development experts, tourists, and government officials, all value the Himalayan lowlands, but these groups value different aspects of that ecosystem and differ in their visions of how to manage it. The challenge is to meld these varied visions into fair and sustainable practices that conserve wild plants and animals, respect the rights of local users, and integrate the knowledge and insights of both villagers and outside experts.

Although the setting and the specifics are unique, similar scenarios are playing out throughout the developing world. Finding ways to meet the needs of vulnerable species and vulnerable cultures is a daunting task, but one that we cannot afford to shirk.

The author, Bertie J. Weddell, is a wildlife biologist. She can be contacted at

Courtesy: ECS

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